Secondary specialists remain an inhibition

12th December 1997 at 00:00
The inspectorate claims that problems with teaching and learning in S1 and S2, first identified 10 years ago, have not been tackled. But its report (page 3) argues that "there is no compelling case at present for a radical reorganisation of the S1S2 curriculum". That will not please Brian Boyd, whose Platform article on the opposite page makes the case for a more thoroughgoing overhaul. But it will reassure the many teachers who could not contemplate a complete change to practices at the lower end of secondary when Higher Still is increasingly preoccupying them, at least in some subjects at a new level of worry.

The previous need to implement Standard grade, followed by the attention to S5 and S6, contributed to the neglect of the first years and, indeed, to the taunt from primary teachers that the 5-14 programme has become in effect 5-12. The inspectors are hard on secondary schools for downplaying the importance of 5-14, although they appear to accept the problem in moving pupils from a seamless primary curriculum to one which is subject-based. Environmental studies pose the biggest challenge, and there will be a welcome for the promised review of guidelines.

If S1 and S2 are the years in which Scots pupils fall behind international peers, previous explanations will not wash. All young people go through puberty. In most countries there is a school transfer around 11 or 12. Therefore, we can only look to the nature of the curriculum offered and the way it is delivered for an answer to underachievement and disaffection. The force of the HMI's argument is indisputable. But it leads to surprisingly little innovative thinking.

Previous themes are reiterated. There should be more direct teaching, including addressing the whole class. At the same time there needs to be more differentiation, recognising that pupils learn at different speeds, especially in a mixed-ability class. Many teachers are already trying to implement the advice, challenging though it is. If the HMI's analysis is right, those who have successfully adopted the strategy ought to be already producing better S1S2 performances than others.

Fewer subjects, fewer teachers - the attempt to reduce novelty overload, particularly in first year, is also not new. Rotating subjects, rather than scrapping some, is the unremarkable recommendation, again one already taken up in schools.

There are two pressures which will inhibit progress. The claims of new subjects are always being pressed. Secondly, schools remain wedded to subject specialists, and they all want access to S1 and S2 pupils, not least because they recruit for Standard grade and Higher. The Munn committee failed to dent self-interest; nor has the inspectorate 20 years later.

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